mark o'connor - olympic poems

The following is a selection of poems that Mark O'Connor produced, often under great time pressure, during the Sydney 2000 Games. They show that quality poetry can be written about topical events, and can capture the public's imagination. Many were read on public radio the morning after the events they describe.

For more information, see also:

Coming Home Strong
for Cathy Freeman, winner of the 400m at the Sydney Games, 25/9/2000

Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child striving,

among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
you came from behind.

Our roar rose till it seemed
sheer decibels must push you clear.

Go Phantom!
Our own corroboree-striped Phantom,
ghost who runs in pain
- to a lap of honor with a double flag.

Your face was a book
of relief and awe that you'd won
that you hadn't cracked.
Then the pain of great tears about to start.

So tense you could scarcely see your fans
- such sacks of their self-esteem
you'd carried. So many
had punted their hearts on you.

Once you laid down that load
you knew how heavy it was
and how lonely you still could be
-but Cathy, only if you choose.

You have entered Dawn Fraserdom. Beware!
Whatever befalls, you can't hide from our love!

Happiness includes trust
in others - that gold-medal smile
when you finally twigged
our huge roar was harmless.

May some day the ghost who runs
run for pure joy!

A mob's howl can be cheap,
and athletes mere entertainers,
actors with only one line.
But yours was a victory that meant.
And what it meant will grow.

But as you sang Advance Australia Fair
I think you finally knew
that Australia would be fair.

Last night at least one lost child
came safely home. By the time
you found your mother in the crowd
you had found a family too.

The Olympic Ideal

for Arsi Harju of Finland, men's shotput champion, 2000 Games.

The stringy triathletes stream past, I stay fixed
as a haggis-bellied man
hugs a pudding-sized lump of lead
to his ear ; his buttocks
two watermelons yoked in a sack
of reddish tights; he props
one-legged like a sleeping stork,

wavers, bizarrely off-balance, then

with the gesture of one
resolving at last
to fling away his cell-phone in disgust,
risks all in a beefy ballet-twirl.

Thus stout fellows once
crashed rocks on the shields of besiegers.

The next pub-bellied beefcake spins
like a pot-bellied toddler
to an arrested pas de seul  - ends
with one leg at dog-pissing angle
to balance what he's just thrown
(the throw too at low-pissing angle)
teeters a second, and in sad slow-mo
with a sailor's despairing wave
tips down, disqualified.

Next our countryman throws
better than those before; crowd roars;
it all seems less silly.

But now Arsi hugs to his stubbled cheek
a dense chunk of earth's gravity;
tensed for his famous chook-hop and spin,

he cocks a leg in direction of throw,
then slips through a sideways goose-step
to a stooped-emu stride
and a swift pas-de-rhino

- from which a straight piston-thrust
sends the ball on its grass-smashing way.

Neat men in suits run up
to take possession of his valued work.

Gumblies, farewell. It's over.
Ers Burglar, we may never meet again.

And Arsi Harju strides off,
a bouquet of Aussie wildflowers
lost in his fist.  

The Olive Tree

Nobody knows how long it takes to kill an olive.
Drought, axe, fire, are admitted failures. Hack one down,
grub out a ton of mainroot for fuel, and next spring
every side-root sends up shoots. A great frost
can leave the trees leafless for years; they revive.
Invading armies will fell them. They return
through the burnt-out ribs of siege machines.

Only the patient goat, nibbling his way down the ages,
has malice to master the olive. Sometimes, they say,
a man finds a dead orchard, fired and goat-
cropped centuries back. He settles and fences;
the stumps revive. His grandchildren's family prosper
by the arduous oil-pressing trade. Then wars
and disease wash over. Goats return. The olives
go under, waiting another age.

Their shade still lies where Socrates disputed.
Gethsemane's withered groves are bearing yet.

[This poem describes the un-killable olive tree from whose branches
the victors' garlands in the ancient Olympiads and the first modern Olympiads
were woven.

The Olympic Torch as Metaphor

Never has so much jog and slog
gone into maintaining a metaphor.
(That's what we poets call
working an image.)

Some speechwriter spouted: The Olympics' spirit
has spread to the ends of the earth.
Alright, some hack may have called it a flame.
Must have, in fact.
I'm sure they just meant
it was something you pass on, don't keep for long,
but make sure someone else has got it, sort of.
Yes, like a taper, way back in the old days.
Well, a fire-stick, too. We once farmed Australia that way,
on the sly - and whoosh! those flames really spread.

Hey don't take it all so literal. It's an image.
Some poets use them all the time.
Shakespeare would do you six in a line.
Mind you, when he wrote "Blow, blow, you winter wind"
Or "Now is the winter of our discontent..."
he didn't get 10,000 runners in shivery shorts
rushing round puffing their cheeks blue with cold.

Ah SOCOG, you conclave of poets,
you've made the invisible
visible. Ideals shine and burn.
No matter how often the flame goes out.
No matter Apollo refused to light it.
No matter it burns artificial hydrocarbons.
No matter a flame has no history.
doesn't care who lit it or why.
It's still an image.
A damned good image. And what poet wouldn't love
To see thousands out there, beating time to his thoughts.

Now thousands of people: the stringbean fit,
the mildly obese, and those who enquire
if the SOCOG shorts don't come in a larger size.
-they've got this one thought
in their... soles - and they won't knock it off.
Onward the Flame! Beat those feet!
across holy immensities
of Australian landscape.

Just look at the Reconciliation crowds
to see the strength of a metaphor whose time has come.

It's a new form of firestick farming
- one where the torch doesn't burn the land.
Lights only itself. And us.

Torch Running

Fanned by the flail of Pindar's tongue
from Olympia's dry creeks it leapt
past empires, swift as signal-fire from Troy.

Next it took wing, in a slipstream's howl,
approaching the Top End
of the great scorched Southland
over the slow arrows of the people smugglers
glued to ocean's dark plate, arriving
where dawn is a curve of primal white
so distant it seems straight.

The Last Land was waiting, a saucer in darkness;
its fire-glow lit by a screaming torch of parrots.
over the dragon-breath plains,
where desert peoples winnow grass seeds,
share honey-ants, living
that perfect democracy whose each citizen
is a Local Member.

Now the flame is down.
It runs swift as bushfires
past dry hiss of rock-kissing scales
that whispers its runners trespass here
Yet runs on in triumph, borne by those who have sworn
that honor will not out-run them.

Now the flame runs South
through the blood-heat places
where a firm-fleshed human dries like a jellyfish,
and the bicycling lizard gets up, levitates
on its blur of legs
outrunning the bare red earth.

South, south, past cool morning interludes
of parrot song and gully chortle
as any in Australia's winter, ]
further south than Ulysses dreamed could be
South to Melbourne, that furthest city of Greeks,
and up to Sydney, that stunning womb of harbor.

The feather-trousered lorikeet, a honey-gathering robot,
punk colors to the soles of his feet
stares, briefly amazed, in this land of rainbows
where the full moon has come to stare.

And a voice beats out
in the panting heat,
in restless scud of the thudding heels:
"No need now to be Greek;
we are all Earth's children; our huge future wars
will be personal, and bloodless."

Olympic Fireworks

(Closing Ceremony 1 October 2000)

Midnight: a river of fire
hit old Sydney's vitals; her bridge
blew away in sparks; deconstructed
to luminescent spaghetti.

There was never such cracking and banging,
such warding off of midnight demons!
We set war on the clouds;
making galaxies born out of nothing
roar and fade.
Sperm-squiggling spears of rocket-flame loosed
broad waterfalls of feathered light,
great sizzling sideward Catherine Wheels,
jack-in-a-box galaxies exploding into black,
sea-urchin palaces built in space,
flopping coxcombs, sheet lightnings,
sperm-and-ovum bangs, slewing fireballs,
rose blushers, horizon glows
like a fire in the next suburb.

From strobing flares that freeze the world
tinsel universes tinkled down
synchonise-swimming to extinction
through fresh sky-probings,
like wavering depth-charges reversed,
among space chrysanthemums turning
to evanescent asters that fell
like a skyful of feathers,
like virgin night-flowers that vanish unmated
- or a dance of midnight sombreros
in mocking theatre of the absurd.

At last gunpowder went rainbow.
Shells banged with sheer mirth.

Those old Games were war in disguise:
the race in full armour, the javelin, killer-frisbee
rock-hurling, and boxing with metal gloves.
It was men's work only.

Last night we have seen the world playing war
but more truly than ever, at play.

Olympic Tickets

We've ripped the sweat out of the Games.
Look it's done by computer
and the results arrive by mail. Hush! Can you hear?
- All over the suburbs, the roar
of envelopes tearing? And Yes!, at Number 10
It's Gold! Gold! for the Protheros!
They've lit a fire. They're dancing on the lawn.
- Not so good at Number 15.
The Grampolinis are a bit bronzed off.
They thrill to the shrill of the soccer ref's whistle.
Hard luck! It's the Lady's Nude Luge for them!

And Rhea Yemenis at no. 1, well she really loves
those elegant gymnasts. She's got the Clean and Jerk.
Welcome back to the world, Australia.
When was it ever all winners?
When was there ever splendiferous gold
without a pining bronze and a whole heap of losers
under the winner's chariot wheels?
But be grateful too, to have bumped the ground hard,
and be up and running.


Ah Mr Thorpe, you've done it again!
Those freakish feet churning
away from the losers to a tumble-turn
like a seal's prop-and-balk;
then that smooth long reach
with a sharkish jerk at the end;
and after, your hooded face
like a leopard at prey
with only a shy inner joy.

You can touch the wet wall
of a chlorinated pool
a long finger's-grope ahead of the world.
That makes us proud
and some of them sad
though I can't, for my wit, say why.

Sure, we train more swimmers than Chad.
Sure, you'd make a good lifesaver . . .

Yet once the crowd get rabid
in time to your six-beat kick,
as proud as if we could do it ourselves,
(since you are/we are "Australia")

and when at the end you pull free
from your fellow eels,
I half find myself whispering:
'Glory, Thorpy, glory'.